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Say “Aloha”: A closer look at Facebook’s voice ambitions

Facebook has been a bit slow to adopt the voice computing revolution. It has no voice assistant, its smart speaker is still in development, and some apps like Instagram aren’t full equipped for audio communication. But much of that is set to change judging by experiments discovered in Facebook’s code, plus new patent filings. Developing voice functionality could give people more ways to use Facebook in their home or on the go. Its forthcoming Portal smart speaker is reportedly designed for easy video chatting with distant family, including seniors and kids that might have trouble with phones. Improved transcription and speech-to-text-to-speech features could connect Messenger users across input mediums and keep them on the chat app rather than straying back to SMS. But Facebook’s voice could be drowned out by the din of the crowd if it doesn’t get moving soon. All the major mobile hardware and operating system makers now have their own voice assistants like Siri, Alexa, Google Assistant, and Samsung Bixby, as well as their own smart speakers. In Q2 2018, Canalys estimates that Google shipped 5.4 million Homes, and Amazon shipped 4.1 million Echoes. Apple’s HomePod is off to a slow start with less than 6 percent of the market, behind Alibaba’s smart speaker according to Strategy Analytics . Facebook’s spotty record around privacy might deflect potential customers to its competitors. Given Facebook is late to the game, it will need to arrive with powerful utility that solves real problems. Here’s a look at Facebook’s newest developments in the voice space, and how its past experiments lay the groundwork for its next big push. Aloha Voice Facebook is developing its own speech recognition feature under the name Aloha for both the Facebook and Messenger apps, as well as external hardware — likely the video chat smart speaker it’s developing. Code inside the Facebook and Messenger Android apps dug up by frequent TechCrunch tipster and mobile researcher Jane Manchun Wong gives the first look at a prototype for the Aloha user interface.

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Amazon’s Echo Dot Kids Edition gains new skills from Disney and others

Amazon is today rolling out a set of new features to its Echo Dot Kids Edition devices — the now $70 version of the Echo Dot smart speaker that ships with a protective case and a year’s subscription to Amazon FreeTime, normally a $2.99 per month subscription for Prime members. Now joining the Kids Edition’s parental controls and other exclusive content are new skills from Disney, Hotel Transylvania and Pac-Man, as well as a calming “Sleep Sounds” skill for bedtime. There are now four new skills that play sounds of thunderstorms, rain, the ocean or a babbling brook, as well as an all-encompassing “Sleep Sounds” skill that offers 42 different soothing options from which to choose. New parents may be glad to know that this includes baby-soothing sounds like cars, trains and the vacuum (don’t knock it until you try it, folks — it works). Amazon clarified to us that while there is a version of sleep sounds in the Skill Store today, this version launching on the Kids Edition is a different, child-directed version. Also new to the Kids Edition is “Disney Plot Twist,” which is like a Disney version of Mad Libs, where players change out words and phrases in short adventure stories. The skill features popular Disney characters like Anna, Olaf and Kristoff as the narrators and is exclusive to Kids Edition devices. The new movie “Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation” is featured in another new skill, Drac’s Pack, which includes monster stories, songs and jokes. Meanwhile, Pac-Man Stories is a skill that includes interactive stories for the whole family that work similar to choose-your-own-adventures — that is, the decisions you make will affect the ending. Both of these are broadly available on Alexa, meaning they don’t require a Kids Edition device to access. Stories, however, does appear to be one of the areas Amazon is investing in to make its Alexa-powered speakers more appealing to families with young children. The company recently decided to stop working on its chat stories app Amazon Rapids , saying it will instead continue to adapt those Amazon Rapids stories for the Alexa platform.

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